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UCDD Boss Turns Agency Into Family Business

UCDD Boss Turns Agency Into Family Business

By Phil Williams. CREATED Feb 20, 2012

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. - A NewsChannel 5 investigation of the Upper Cumberland Development District now has its board preparing for an emergency meeting on Friday.

But they may have more than just that million-dollar mansion and all that extravagant spending to discuss.
 
Now, we've discovered how the agency that was supposed to be helping the poor may have also been helping the family of the woman who runs it.
 
"So you've hired your own family?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked UCDD executive director Wendy Askins.
 
"I think I've done a great job in hiring," she answered, "because when I took the position 17 years ago, it was almost bankrupt."
 
When Askins talks about the UCDD, she talks like its her agency -- which may explain how her family all landed on the agency payroll
 
Her brother, her sister, her father, her mother all got jobs.
 
Even her recent-college graduate daughter got a part-time position that she held throughout college. That's the same daughter who had a studio apartment inside that million-dollar Living the Dream house in rural Putnam County.
 
"My daughter has worked here on the college mentoring program," she acknowledged.
 
All that despite UCDD policies against the "employment of relatives."
 
"There are no nepotism policies that has been violated -- not any of them," Askins said.
 
So how can she hire her family and not violate nepotism policies?
 
"There are not nepotism policies in place that have been violated," she continued.
 
That policy, patterned after state law, states that "no employee will be hired or otherwise placed within the same direct line of supervision where one relative is responsible for supervising the job performance or work activities of another relative."
 
But Askins argues that, if she hires them and then lets somebody else supervise them, it's all OK -- even though UCDD policies say "the executive director is the only person with the authority to hire, promote, transfer or dismiss" any employee.
 
"You are ultimately the boss, so everybody answers to you," we noted.
 
"I'm the executive director," she said.
 
"Everybody answers to you," we continued.
 
"We answer to the board, and they approve our policies and procedures manual," she added.
 
State Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, who sits on the UCDD board, said: "If I can fire someone, I've got a direct line to them if I can fire them."
 
Curtiss added that he's concerned not only about how it looks, but also about how if affects the organization.
 
"If it's done in a way -- say you've got family members working in an organization and they are getting better pay than someone else doing the exact same job or better benefits, then it's bad. The morale is out the window when that happens."
 
In fact, our investigation discovered that Askins' brother, father and sister also have take-home cars -- and gas cards. Her father has a $36,000r Toyota Venza.
 
We also found more than $8,000 in extra checks written to her sister, almost $400 to her stepdaughter who lives in East Tennessee supposedly for "administrative work," plus, tens of thousands of dollars in other checks she wrote out of Living the Dream accounts for work on the project. 
 
There are even checks she wrote to herself with handwritten notes claiming she paid those relatives out of her pockets.
 
One $2,000 check written to her daughter Anna -- supposedly for "night work" at Living the Dream -- was endorsed back over to Wendy Askins.
 
On top of all that, our investigation discovered that Askins has an agency vehicle that she often treats like a family vehicle.
 
She's charged hundreds of dollars to agency credit cards for travel to Ohio where her daughter kept a show horse. A photo from Facebook shows that vehicle being used to tow a horse trailer.
 
"Your daughter's cell phone is paid for out of agency phones, her iPhone?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
 
Askins replied, "She worked for the development district, absolutely."
 
That's right. UCDD funds were being used to pay for her daughter Anna's iPhone.
 
Askins: "She had a pretty prominent position here actually. She did a lot of important work for our administrative director."
NC5: "You just told me she was a part of the college mentor program."
Askins: "She is, absolutely, she was part of the college mentoring. But she's extremely bright."
 
It's something auditors might have missed. That's because the bills for the daughter's smartphone are actually listed in Wendy Askins' name. The mother's phone is just listed in the agency's name.
 
NC5: "So how many college students get agency cell phones, iPhones?"
Askins: "If they need them, they request them."
NC5:  "So why did your daughter need an iPhone?"
Askins: "So that she could communicate with the administrative services director."
NC5:  "Is a regular phone not good enough?"
Askins: "Well, I'm paying for that phone now and I paid for it previously and I don't have any more comments about that."
 
Our investigation also discovered that Askins has two agency gas cards in her name that appeared to be used for two different vehicles, although it's not clear which vehicles.
 
As for the nepotism, several UCDD board members told me they had not idea that Ms. Askins had so many relatives on the payroll.
 
A total of about 28 people in all had take-home vehicles, although none of them had a more expensive vehicle than Ms. Askins' father.
 
Still, as our stories were about to air, she sent out this memo, directing all those employees to turn in their cars and telling them that they would be responsible for their own cell phone bills -- at least temporarily, -- according to the memo.
 

Phil Williams

Phil Williams

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Phil Williams is chief investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5's nationally award-winning investigative team. His investigations have earned him journalism's highest honors.